AS MORE marketers use social media such as Twitter and Facebook in their professional and personal lives, the lines between the official company line and private comment are becoming increasingly blurred.
In the past few days a spat between a senior executive at IBM and a journalist was played out very publicly on Twitter. IBM's head of digital marketing, Martin Walsh, says the tweets directed at the technology journalist Nate Cochrane did not represent the views of his company, despite his Twitter profile clearly identifying him as an employee of the global IT giant.
The clash raises the issue of brand management in an era of social media, when everyone has an opinion and a place to publish it, however impulsive or scathing.
A similar issue confronted Telstra last year when one of its employees was identified as the person behind the Twitter account of the "Fake Stephen Conroy", commenting on issues concerning the listed telco.
The controversy prompted Telstra to develop guidelines for its employees using social media. The chief executive of the Australian Interactive Media Industry Organisation, John Butterworth, said companies needed to be clear with employees about their expectations. ''I'd encourage employees to think about it very carefully, too. Good, old-fashioned common sense needs to come into play."
The regional director of Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence, Brian Giesen, said his company advised all clients to have a social media policy.
"It's very simple: any company that employs people should have a clear social media policy. There should be guidelines about what employees can and can't say."
However, Mr Butterworth warned against prohibition as a way of managing brand communication in social media. ''In terms of content marketing, which is what all these social media are used for, if you have staff who are fantastic commentators, use them. The worst thing that you can do is ban people. That's not a great reflection on doing business in the 21st century.''
In dealing with the Fake Stephen Conroy issue, Telstra management had to consider whether or not to stop staff using social media. "We're learning on the fly,'' said Telstra's group managing director of public policy and communications, David Quilty. ''We had a choice to do the typical corporate thing and clamp down, but we're a comms company; it would be pretty silly to clamp down."
Telstra has a policy and a training module for its staff on the use of social media based on what Mr Quilty calls "the three Rs - responsibility, respect and representation".
Employees who used social media for Telstra in an official capacity were trained and accredited, he said. "It's actually worked better than we expected. It's a learning curve, and a lot of common sense needs to prevail. Our view is if we facilitate, hopefully [the staff] will be advocates and be positive."
Ultimately, though, employees will only say good things about their company if they believe in the company. The Korean car maker Hyundai recently found itself at the pointy end of a Twitter feed when disgruntled employees lashed out at the management of its Australian arm.
Hyundai Motor Company Australia's senior manager of product communications and public relations, Ben Hershman, would not say whether it had a policy for social media. His company was surprised that there were ''negative comments out there''.
Apply common sense.
Draw on talented commentators in your organisation.
Create guidelines for use of social media.
Allow your employees to confuse official and private conversations.
Now - there's some extra notes to add to this.. perhaps the Westpac "Oh so very over it today" tweet could be included in the above commentary. Did you miss it? Gavin summed up it very eloquently here: When a bad days good
I think the first point in the etiquette above pretty much says it all - apply common sense! Although somehow I expect we're going to see more of these public exchanges ;-)